As we got on with all this I realised that I had been carrying some Gaelic around with me for a while without really working out exactly what I was doing with it. It’s not a burden, but it did sometimes look like a more exotic piece of baggage than a person in my position would be expected to carry.
I was given Gaelic from the beginning of primary school at about five years of age. For most languages this would work. But Gaelic was being revived compulsorily by the Irish state. The nation had accepted that Gaelic was the Irish language, that it would be the principal language of the law and the constitution, that Ireland would become, in time, bilingual.
We seemed to do it badly. Very few of us came out of school able to speak Irish. It was taught as a dead language, by ignorant, violent hooligans who meant well. Grammar was everything. Speech was almost nothing. There was hardly any real speech available, nobody in school to whom Gaelic was a language alive beyond the textbook. Outside, there was a great lack of fanaticism in the way the nation treated a language it said it wanted, thought it wanted, but mostly only wanted to want.
The language of Erin is brilliant as gold;
It shines with a lustre unrivalled of old.
Even glanced at by strangers by whom ‘tis unknown
It dazzles their eyes with a light all its own.
Apparently, what we wanted was a symbol of difference. Visitors would ask, we would pretend to know more Irish than we did and then felt more authentic – and more uneasy – doing it. I used to work with a London Irish festival and one of the things you could rely on the London Irish for was a terrible determination to use Gaelic as a badge. The Irish Centre was called Aras na nGael – the House of the Gael. Now gael is the word for a Gaelic speaker and it would not always apply to everybody Irish. But for the London Irish it did and they felt it had to. There was another, South London, Irish festival that intended to call itself Anam ár Cinniunt – The Name of Our Destiny – until they noticed that hardly anybody could say it. Can you imagine a Black or Islamic festival claiming their Destiny like this? So the South Londons changed it to Anam ár nDán – which you can say without torturing your mouth; and which also means The Name of Our Destiny but uses a meaning for dán which nobody without a dictionary would know.
All this was being watched from Scotland, where everybody’s first question about the language assumes that the revival has failed and there is often a very strong Scottish suggestion that the failure has something very Irish about it: we couldn’t organise ourselves; we were a disappointment, as was Irish independence, which had apparently also failed – to produce any prosperity whatsoever, to stop emigration, to put any kind of manners on the Catholic Church. This is what things looked like during the 70’s and 80’s. For quite a while we often looked like a nation of amusing fools.
A Ógánaigh an chúil cheangailte
le raibh mé seal in éineacht,
cúig tú aréir an bealach seo
is níor tháinig tú dom fhéachaint.
Shíl mé nach ndéanfaí dochar duit
dá dtiocfá agus mé d’iarraidh,
is gurb é do phóigín a thabharfadh sólás dom
dá mbeinn a lár an fhiabhrais.
Agus shíl mé, a stóirín,
go mba gealach agus grian tú,
agus shíl mé ina dhiaidh sin
go mba sneachta ar an sliabh tú,
agus síl mé ina dhiadh sin
go mba lóchrann ó Dhia tú,
nó go mba tú an réalt eolais
ag dul romham is ‘mo dhiadh tú.
You were my lad of the ribboned hair
and you and I walked out together
but you passed this way last night
and you never called to see me.
It seemed to me no bother
to call in here and ask for me
- it’s still your kiss could calm me
if I were struck with fever.
And I thought, dear,
that you were the moon and sun,
and then I thought
that you were as snow on the hill,
and then I thought
that you were the light of God
or that you were the star of knowing
We felt foolish and unamusing. The public life of Irish was a joke. But there was a private life too. The Brothers gave us poems with a real music to them, as they could hardly avoid doing. They did of course censor and mutilate some of the greatest. But no censorship ever works perfectly and enthusiasm will sometimes fail to notice the things it’s trying to hate. We had, for instance, A Óganaig an Chúil Cheangailte, a lovelorn song voiced by a girl for a boy with braided hair – astonishing because it was a love song, because it was by a girl, because it was for a pretty boy; because it was there.
We couldn’t fail to see that Gaelic has masterpieces that nobody should have to do without; also that Irish is about as unlike English as a language can get. We used to do a theatrical/reading thing in Kilburn that included some of the Caoineadh Art Ó Laoghaire – an 18th century love song-lament over the body of her young husband by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonnaill. Donncha Crowley read it in his dark-vowelled Munster Irish. He read it to all sorts of people – Irish and not Irish, poetic and otherwise. It always stunned them. We did a translation as well but what really worked was the way the Irish worked, its heartbroken, full-hearted brevity, saying more than you thought could be said in lines that are about as short as lines can be.
Mo ghrá go daingean tú!
My love and my delight.
My steadfast love!
Dear steadily-loved one,
Not many have tried to translate the Caoineadh. There’s a long queue for Merriman’s Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche. People think it can be done, more or less. Eibhlín Dubh just cannot. So Donncha’s reading was like a demonstration of what the original music of poetry does. Listeners from Luton to Paisley sat there and listened like careful, smitten children.
After Donncha did the Irish, somebody else had to limp in with an English version. This was always treated with respect - it was needed - but it was no disrespect to English itself to see that it could not be bent around to do what Eibhlín’s Irish did.
It can surprise people to see that, if any translation of Irish is going to work at all, then English is probably not going to be the best bet. It can be assumed that, since Ireland and England are kind-of neighbours, have been historically locked together, then the two languages should be used to talking to each other, should have things in common. But the opposite is the case.
By giving us even limited Irish The Brothers, and the State, were giving us more than we realised. Even though we were not enabled to live our daily lives in Irish, we had been made native to some of the fundamentals of the language. In a limited way we had been taken beyond translation and we joined a generation who could never describe themselves as Irish speakers but for whom Irish was part of the ground they walked on.
We heard no language but the Gaelic. In the midst of the assembly, as I took trouble to note, a huge gaunt man was reciting what was apparently a very violent poem – to judge by the excitement under which he laboured. I can recall but two lines . . ( by the way my guide offered to translate the whole poem into Latin, as he did not seem satisfied that he could appositely render it in such English as he knew).Solace, from A Munster Twilight, Daniel Corkery, 1916.)
We felt that Irish was underneath us everywhere and that numbers of speakers or square miles of territory were more or less irrelevant; it would always be there. Yeats had told us we were the indomitable Irishry and this was too flattering for us to want to ask exactly who exactly the indomitables were. We didn’t expect Irish to be everywhere, or even to be very visible anywhere.
My family come from Stoneybatter (stoney + bothar, a road) on the ancient road to Tara, just a half mile away from the original ford on the Liffey with gave Dublin its original name (Baile Ath Cliath, the town of the hurdle ford). Though Dubliners used to be called ‘Jackeens’ – cheap imitation English, products of The Pale - casual city talk often has bits of Irish floating just beneath the surface or coming up for air every now and again. Finnegan’s Wake, a very Dublin song has an Irish-English punch line. The name Stoneybatter can stand for the way I think Ireland is now. We have in us a great deal of Irish English and a deal of unacknowleged Irish and there’s a long way to go. But what we have we hold.
We were a transitional generation and we were replaced by a far more active and less easily satisfied one. Now things are better - not miles and miles better, but definitely better, have gone well beyond our stage and when you meet some of the poets and people in this book and in our film you will see some reasons why. But, if you go to Ireland you may still be puzzled.
People often take off into Ireland and Scotland in search of Gaelic. It never works. Journalists do it almost habitually and they always report the utter lack of, the death of, Gaelic. And they’re always wrong though, as usual with very important parts of The Truth, you can never prove it, or at least you can never prove it to the sort of person who looks in order not to find.
Gaelic speakers speak Gaelic to other Gaelic speakers. So if you think you can arrive in Gortahork and expect to hear Gaelic all around you, don’t bother! First, country towns are places of extraordinary watchfulness. One does not go down the street there letting whatever it is all hang out. In country towns, one dangles it coyly, half-hidden behind a bushel and one waits for a considered reaction maybe several weeks later. By this time, the visitor has left. In Gaelic parts, the language is not brandished; it is spoken as English also is spoken – laconically and without footnotes.
And don’t ask people to give you a wee paragraph in Gaelic; don’t ask people to perform. Better to assume that Gaelic is there somewhere and to try to work out where this might be and how.
English as a Foreign Language
Two very nice English people go on holiday in the Scottish Highlands. They are in favour – all in favour! – of local produce, local enterprise, local everything. They would like to eat a local fish. They approach their most local native informant. They would like a fish.
Time passes. The holiday’s span has all too short a date. They ask again.
The Local informant moseys off, apparently much more bewildered than he should be. The couple wait.
From time to time they meet The Informant on the street. He now knows the score. He gives them a knowing look.
He says, as though speaking in code.
An off he goes, chuckling conspiratorially.
It’s days later; they are almost at the end of their holiday and the Informant arrives at their door triumphant.
He says. And there, next to him, fish in hand, is the local poacher. A fish! is not just a fish
The guest house ladies of Stornoway will not help you – they keep Gaelic out the back with their husbands, their sheds and their dogs. Neither will men in filling stations. In fact, neither will anybody; and why should they? Hospitality means speaking the language of your guest, even if that happens to be English and even if it means they will never understand you, or you them.
But observe the apparent absence of Gaelic, the silence – in places where it should be. And never doubt that Gaelic is around about you somewhere and somehow. Do not, whatever you do, expect maps like this one – which tries to show the Gaeltacht areas – to do anything but what maps usually tell you, which is never the whole truth. Languages can not be entirely mapped.
‘You’d miss the Gaelic from the placenames’,
you said, turning from the danger-seat to me in the back swigging Talisker
driving through Wester Ross making for the Kyle of Lochalsh.
And the next signpost we came to was Achnasheen.
How could there be any Gaelic ‘for’ Achnasheen?
It isn’t Gaelic any more. It could never be English.
Despite the murderous maps,
despite the bereft roadsigns,
despite the casual distortions of illiterate scribes,
the name remains beautiful. A maimed beauty.
Hiding behind it somewhere
its real name.
You’d almost think the conquerors thought
Gaelic was God:
Its real name unnameable.
And I remembered the first time crossing the Border,
not the Highland Line but the one from Cavan into ‘Ulster’,
and missing the Gaelic placenames, the maiming ugliness of that;
guessing the real names, failing to guess, the irk of that,
like a horsehair down the back.
The Gaelic names beating their wings madly
behind the mad cage of English;
the new names half the time transparent, but half the time
silent as the grave
English would bury Irish in.
Later we saw Beinn Ailleagan: the jewelled mountain –
but not called that but keeping its true name:
wearing its name like a jewel
upon its snow-white breast
like the jewel of the Gaelic tongue
that old men and young women keep shining and singing
all over the Catholic islands and the Calvinist
islands for all the invader
and his canting quisling ministers could reek.
And will the black sticks of the devil, Eoghan,
ever pipe us into heaven at last –
as one night down the torchlit streets of Áth Dara –
into a heaven of freedom to give
their true names?
Like streets in Barcelona,
They say there is one man, and one man only, in Scotland who knows how to spell in Gaelic – meaning that he can explain his spellings and have other people accept them. Scottish Gaelic poets go to him just to check. But still, Gaelic poets are not allowed speling mistakes, even though only one man in the whole of Scotland can say with any kind of certainty when a spelling mistake has occurred or what exactly it is.
Shakespeare would have had a hard time of it here; and have you ever seen the way Yeats likes to spell? I can see that spelling is important for children in primary school – my teacher told me. But how is it that we now read so entirely through our eyes that an apparently false step in spelling prevents us hearing first of all the sound and the sense of poetry?
He’s a very nice man incidentally. And it’s not his fault. And imagine how nervous the poets would be if he were not there. Or maybe things would sort themselves out if we all decided to spell as we speak. And Gaelic is the language of many accents, usually spoken with rhapsodic disregard for the ability of listeners to make head or tail of the music as it flies past.James Joyce would have had a hard time of it in Gaelic. Mind you, that would have meant no Finnegans Wake. I wouldn’t have minded all that much. Would you?
In Ireland there are obvious difficulties. The language is not safe, is not used routinely for business and is not always taught as well as French or Spanish except in the new Irish language schools. But we do think of it as a normal language, meaning a completely developed means of expressing the culture it comes from; it will be able to do epic and comic, laconic and garrulous, science and poetry. And all real languages are normal. We regard Gaelic as normal, with certain developments and expansions still awaited when we have used it long and hard enough in our own times.
But Gaelic is not regarded as normal in Scotland. It is prized for being different and blamed for being too different. It is the only language expected to make some sense in terms of English. Nobody really minds French words needing to be spoken in terms of French sounds and orthography but I have seen Anglophone Scots look at a Gaelic word and getting themselves outraged because Gaelic spelling does not make sense in English. Why should it? Does Greek or Russian?
Sometimes the outraged Scot has been a speaker of Scots - a language in chronic and very interesting difficulties with its fluid orthography. However, these difficulties can be understood in relation to English, to which Scots is closely related. Gaelic has nothing much to do with English at all.
Scots often rail against English misunderstandings but they often go on railing against them while they continue to swallow them. Dr Johnson called Gaelic ‘a simple language for a simple people’ and no Scot likes this but many Scots think it. There is a fear that Gaelic will fail to have the full set of academic credentials, that it can stand up not just as a culture but as a written literature. And all this despite Gaelic being the oldest vernacular literature in Europe, written down hundreds of years before English was even a possibility.
In Scotland Gaelic is still thought of as a language for lullabies and laments. The Scots are often proud of Gaelic but proud as you might be proud of a gifted but damaged child. You rejoice in it privately; but you don’t really think it could manage on its own in the real world.
In Ireland we used to call Gaelic Irish. After living in Scotland for a while, I started calling it Gaelic and thought this was a more precise word. Also you could never call Scottish Gaelic Scottish – because it has never been the national language or the language of the whole population. So I make my mind up and use Gaelic; and then I start getting funny looks and the poets I meet start indirectly putting me right. Biddy Jenkinson says she doesn’t mind which word is used, but her husband does; and she says why. It is the Irish language and it should be called Irish; and she explains how her husband can get a bit worked up about all this and in the explainng she gets a bit worked up too and decides that she really does mind. I have to mend my ways. Now, when I say Gaelic, I apologise and blame Scotland. Anyway, I do prefer Irish. We are a nation once again.
I started an outline. We called it an outline but it was really a cairn of ideas about the various things I happened to know, or could find out, about the writers and artists I liked and thought I could understand. It was anecdotal, based on some work and on many accidents.
Aonghas MacNeacail had greatness thrust upon him, as far as I was concerned, as a dog walker. The dog used to wag the poet around the upper Meadows. Aonghas would walk the way the Gaels grumble – gradually, consistently and apparently forever. He walks around this project, also, doggedly and stoically. He hopes for the best but he knows that this is not always a good idea
Leamsa an t’sráid, ars an cú,
Eadar mise’s a ghrain, ars an cú
D’fhág mi sgáile’s ruigidh mi sgáile, sál air mo teanga
The street is mine, says the dog
It’s between me and the sun, says the dog
I left shade and I’ll reach shade,
salt on my tongue.Aonghas Macneacail
I used, for instance, to observe Aonghas Macneacail more often than I spoke to him. I had invited him once to read on the night of Edinburgh’s first Beltane (Bealtaine) Festival since the 19th century. The winds blew and the drums rolled and hearing anything more human than an overblown cowhorn (which were present and blowing away) was impossible. It was an impossible gig for a poet and he never blamed me. He’s a very nice man; and he’s a poet. It’s possible; and it’s rare.
In the outline I included details that stuck in my mind – Michael Davitt’s very active, expressive elbows, David Quinn’s exquisite pullovers, Biddy Jenkinson’s attitude to cooking. Our outline didn’t have a visual bone in its body. It was really a series of prefaces to the writings and idiosyncrcaies of some poets and artists. You wouldn’t be allowed to do this for a film usually. Try it; and somebody will just mention the word ‘wordy’ and that will be that.
Visual people think visually – usually. But film proposals are not written in images, they’re written in words mostly; and very often, in my small experience, visual people read the words like everybody else reads them. They like them or they don’t. But if they like them, they like them. And - if you are the one who did the words - you think you are on the pig’s back. A yellow-looking, well-bricked road stretches out before you, a royal road towards the making of the film which you have just described, evoked and almost made flesh in words.
Then a horrible thing sometimes happens. The more they enjoy what the words are doing - not just the ‘content’, but the feel, the sound, the whole word circus and the ways it works - the more misgivings they get when they wake up and remember how visual they themselves really are. They say the thing is very ‘wordy’ and you can just see the thing wither right in front of you.
It’s happened to me. And you can’t go back. After making the words you cannot dismantle the way the spiders web works and stick in pictures instead. We had a number of committees to apply to, a dread of being called ‘wordy’, a need for money and a piece of verbal joinery that we approved of but which could never make up its mind whether it was supposed to be prose or fly-me-to-the-moon speak.
Something is usually happening to Gaelic, something bad – History, Politics, The Weather, English. For Gaelic to be happening to something is a surprise, for Gaelic to be happening to the future is amazing. But it’s true. Is Mise an Teanga is a portrait of an emergent, extraordinary process. Thirty living Gaelic poets and a hundred contemporary artists from Ireland and Scotland have grouped themselves around the greatest and the newest Gaelic poems and are rethinking them in terms of how we live now.
- Ist paragraph of our first funding pitch.
Something is usually happening to Gaelic, something bad – History, Politics, The Weather, English. For Gaelic to be happening to something is a surprise, for Gaelic to be happening to the future is amazing. But it’s true. Is Mise an Teanga is a portrait of an emergent, extraordinary process. Thirty living Gaelic poets and a hundred contemporary artists from Ireland and Scotland have grouped themselves around the greatest and the newest Gaelic poems and are rethinking them in terms of how we live now.- Ist paragraph of our first funding pitch
This is the stage in a sensible project at which a sensible person had better make an entrance. One did.
Cassandra McGrogan is a no-nonsense producer-editor-instigator person with various senses of humour. Producers need several, like having a thermos and a hip flask both and being willing to use either, early and often. The fact that her no-nonsense makes you feel nonsensical from time to time only contributes to her collection of humours. She enjoys things and lacks paranoia and when it comes to eating lunch in this town again? - no problem, except of course for her outrageous and regular demands for glasses of hot water - a challenge to remember (nobody else drinks it, I hope), prepare (you want to do things to it, but shouldn’t) and generally come to terms with (hospitable drinks are not supposed to be good for you).
Of course one should not go overboard about being sensible and the place is full of inverted fanatics who waste lifetimes trying to get their cheeks to meet in the middle. Cassandra’s good sense is more like an acid bath than a feet-in-radox experience. The first time I saw her was from the back - she was editing, communicating frontally with several monitors, tangentially with functional people and over a shoulder or two, friendly and brisk, towards us in the back row.
I was there with Eddie McGuire, the composer. He was to compose the music for what Cassandra was editing and he was there to be impressed; and what is more impressive than somebody good doing what they are good at and paying you no attention – whatsoever? Now anybody can pay you no attention. Cassandra, though, goes the extra mile that adds the ‘whatsoever’, the coffin nails of the dismissive, attention-denying process.
So now we were three – Murray would direct, Cassandra would produce and I would write; we would raise money more or less together, first of all by writing outlines and making promises. We had been freewheeling on the Great Book’s momentum, more or less convinced, as everybody else seemed to be, that a film would be made because a film would have to be made. Inside the GB, the greatness and importance of the GB was understood to demand it.
Names would drop like the dung of frightened cattle. At an early meeting a very important poetic person (he had a salary) said - he was sitting down, but you can’t have everything - said that this project was like seeing Robbie Burns (he did say ‘Robbie’, I was taking the minutes), seeing him plain, like time travelling without the time lag, like being, well, he supposed, on television. TV, the most ephemeral medium of them all, is now the arts person’s idea of immortality.
So we felt that we were the guardians of the GB’s hold on posterity. Because the GB was full of great poets and artists, film money would flow. This was putting the shit before the carthorse. Film funders are worse than visual people. They will volunteer not to see the point. For the rest of us, film - and particularly TV - is where everything could happen. For film people, film is where only film things should happen.
The first time somebody I knew became a funder I wondered why somebody who’s skill was to make things happen would want to work where she would mostly be saying ‘no’ for the next thirty years. She did not see it like that of course and I wasn’t going to risk explaining her fatal mistake to a clever woman who might be reading my funding applications.
We had interesting times with funders. Everybody has. Funders have become the licensed lunatics of the arts, the fascinating ones, the existential heroes. I imagine if Rimbaud were interested in coming back, he might fancy working for an arts council or an arts centre. Imagine a venue programmed by somebody who, alone, holds the key to ‘cette parade’. You probably don’t have to imagine it – you’ve already been to places like that.
Funders invent rules - for applications, accountability, access, delivery - create a culture out of nothing, manage to make the rest of us think in its terms. Then they walk elegantly round the outside of it, admiring it in a parental but relaxed way, because it’s there, because it’s theirs and because, in the end, it’s not really necessary to go there if you know the way round; they do and we don’t.
We got together and did the first application. It was a Saturday morning, the Murray Grigor capsule in Inverkeithing, the three of us were there, Murray, Cassandra and I. Now and again Teresa Monachino was there too, caressing the words into looking good on paper.
We did the cheeky bits. Our cheek was not quite the same as the kind of cheek TV people associate with TV vitality but we hoped any cheek would do. Cheek is important, it demonstates attitude, it’s cool. And Gaelic needs cheek rather than the mortician’s reverence it usually gets.
TV people like their arts people to be mad but cute. Being a great poet will not usually get you on TV unless you’re scandalous and dead. But living a surprising, eccentric life would be a good place to start if you happen to be still alive.
All our poets and artists were alive but the way they were kicking was usually subtle, was all to do with how they wrote or painted and not at all concerned with cuteness. We tried to make the poets sound like people you had to meet, not like poets you had to read. It surprised me how little it occurred to us to say about the specifically poetic – the words, the way the poets made them work. The poets were in the outline as characters who happened to write.
We finished an outline - treatment - proposal – advertisement. It was, obviously, nothing like a script. You don’t send in scripts, apparently. You send in promises, evocations of possible scripts. They read this kind of thing. They don’t really like scripts. Scripts are specific, they tie you down. Treatments suggest possible masterpieces which can never be scripted but might someday be seen, given the money.
Then we did the promises, the budgets, the consultations, the equal opportunities, the universal access. This should be the easy part. Everybody who makes a film, writes anything, paints or makes anything wants their work to be lucid, understood, available and everywhere. But every time you make an application you have to prove all over again that you too want all this. The application forms demand that you promise to deliver what we and every other practitioner is completely committed to; and demands it in the language of application forms – the language in which every truth sounds like a lie. You’d probably refuse to swear allegiance to your mother if the Arts Council tried to make you.
I used to work for a festival. It was a while ago and the paper accountability culture was just beginning. We needed an Equal Opportunities statement so we borrowed one from another festival and I still use it. Now I wish we could just borrow the whole series of Good Behaviour statements and concentrate on what we’re supposed to be doing.
We did our bundle of promises and predictions; we sent them off and we waited. For a week our sentence-forming faculties were paralysed. The mixture of coherence, truth, bombast and acceptable lying you need is difficult to learn and difficult to forget. And when you make such efforts to manage acceptable behaviour, you expect an equal achievement in reply.
What we got is what everybody often gets - a hazy, qualified, puzzled but knowing non-event of a reception.They didn’t know what to think and would wait until a sort of concensus formed round the idea, an aura of inevitably. Our aura was hard to identify for a while, so we got no answers. We got vague encouragements. Everything would be all right. Eventually.
We decided to feel encouraged – because you might as well. But we did need to accumulate some real experience of people who might be in the film, look them in the eye and see if we could trust them and if they might trust us.
For example, I wanted to avoid the paranoid mischief-makers. Like the poet who once wouldn’t read with another poet but refused to say he was refusing. Or the other poet who - told that the poetry reading would include music, would not be for out-and-out poetry people and would have a certain light hearted gaiety to it. So he accepted all this, then walked off, slicked back his hair with something greasy and bohemian, strode dreamily on stage, read an uninterrupted stream of twenty or more haikus and strode off again, satisfied. I never punched him but I didn’t intend to volunteer for further temptations.
And maybe we needed to have our own meetings, try a few sentences out on the general reader. I was doing stuff in Ireland anyway, so I was told to see David Hammond, on behalf of Murray, of Cassandra, of Scotland and of the film. The possible funding was Irish-Scottish so we needed an Irish collabortor and Hammond’s company - Flying Fox - might co-produce and I am to persuade him. (Try saying ‘Flying Fox’ in a Belfast accent, as in ‘I don’t give a flying fox’).